13 October 2001
Israel's 'Russians' fight alienation
By the BBC's Paul Anderson
The Ukrainian authorities are now admitting to the likelihood that it was one of their rogue missiles that struck an airliner full of former Soviet immigrants, killing all on board.
The accident has paralysed Israel's Russian community with grief, and left many wondering about their place in Israel.
Israel's immigrant Russians are now learning the agony of loss much as the Israelis have over the past 50 years.
Their spilled blood, grief and frustration, they say, helps them identify with the people of Israel. But it has also exposed how alien many feel in their new homeland.
The mid-air explosion which downed Sibir airlines flight 1812, with the loss of 78 people, was the second major calamity to afflict Israel's Russian community this year.
Four months ago 21 of 22 young people killed in a suicide bomb attack at a discotheque in Tel Aviv were former Soviet immigrants.
Masha Bandman, who was 19, was on her way to her grandfather in Novosibirsk, knowing she would be seeing him for the last time, because he was dying from cancer.
One of her best friends, Masha Pisatski, said she had just returned from Italy and instead of resting and catching another flight a week later, booked the first ticket out so as not to lose time.
"She was like a little sister to me," says Masha. "A beautiful, intelligent girl, full of life. We can't understand she is not alive any more."
Masha says she was affronted by the response of some Israelis, which bordered on indifference.
"There was also an explosion in Afula (in the north of the country) where Israelis were killed. But all they talked about was Afula. I said 70 people were killed in the plane, that they were all Israelis, okay they are Russian, but they are Israelis.
"And they said 'Ah, okay, it's sad', and walked off as if nothing had happened. It was so sad, because Masha's family was so Israeli. Her mother brings so much to Israel."
Israelis have been stung by accusations that the response of some to the tragedy was less than generous.
Yuli Edelstein, the Deputy Minister for Immigration and Absorption and himself a Russian immigrant, said many people continued to mark religious festivals as if nothing happened, which saddened him.
"But thousands of others called our office, offering help, money, food, even to adopt children. I hope that during the coming weeks we'll see that those who offer help and want to show solidarity prevail in this country."
In the 1990s almost 100,000 Jews or people with Jewish relatives from the former Soviet Union came to Israel every year.
This year the figure will be close to 45,000. It's still a huge inflow of people, who are clearly not put off by the violence of the second Palestinian intifada.
Nonetheless, many feel aliens in their adopted country, and the fear is they will choose to emigrate once more.
Some already are, but the numbers so far are small. Masha Pisatski says tragedies like the airliner crash and the disco suicide attack are making the Russians fight back against their misfortune. "We want to show the world we are strong," she says.
Some Israelis feel the same. Schmulik Lem is a volunteer at an informal emotional and social rapid reaction team for immigrants called the Israeli Crisis Management Centre. He has no Russian connection and views things from the outside.
"I am aware there is a problem of immigration, of acceptance," he said. "Israeli is a melting pot in which people from various places become one unity, become stronger through tragedy and not more separate because of tragedy."